Monday, January 31, 2011

Sharing a Post from One of My Teachers on Practicing Through Pregnancy

I've had three Mysore teachers over the life of my practice. Each introduced me to the next at a time when they took some time off from teaching.

Esther Liberman was my second Mysore teacher and she introduced me to David Keil who has been my teacher ever since. I'll be forever grateful for the evenings she spent teaching sometimes just one or two students. She's a fun, warm person and a great teacher!

She headed off on a new adventure not too long ago and became a Mom for the first time! She's written a beautiful post, now posted on Elephant Journal, on the experience of practicing through the months of pregnancy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Answer is: Keep Practicing

...more thoughts on the Yoga Sutras...

Yoga Sutra 2.26-2.28
"The ceaseless flow of discriminative knowledge in thought, word and deed destroys ignorance, the source of pain. Through this unbroken flow of discriminative awareness, one gains perfect knowledge which has seven spheres. By dedicated practice of the various aspects of yoga impurities are destroyed: the crown of wisdom radiates in glory."

-translation by BKS Iyengar

A couple bloggers (Claudia here, David Garrigues here) reported back on Sharath's recent Sunday conference in Mysore. The report was: all questions can be met with the answer "Do more practice."

This is also what catches my attention in the Yoga Sutras. Over and over again the sutras seem to say the same thing in different ways. Have problems? pain? fear? Do more practice.

My experience in practice has so far backed up the theory in the Yoga Sutras. Not only have I found answers that I didn't realize I was seeking, I've also found that I can live more comfortably than I imagined with all the questions.

Practices of late have been quiet and steady. More tinkering with the breath is teaching me more about how I can change the qualities of my practice. I have lately been moving away from the faster, lighter breath that has been my past pattern. It seems to result in some anxious undirected energy at the end of practice and leaves my nervous system a little irritated and raw. I've been moving toward a slower, fuller breath. For the moment this leaves me feeling steadier as I move off the mat and start all the activities of the day.

Monday morning's practice took place in a puddle of moonlight. There was still enough moon to be shining through the studio windows and it moved from one end of the studio to the other during the early part of practice. As I finished up the sky was turning pink and orange. What's not to love?! :)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Question for the Cybershala...

Two weeks from today, I'll be listening to my teacher talk about one of the things he is most fascinated by: human anatomy!

I'll be at David Keil's anatomy workshop soaking up as much as I possibly can in a weekend. It's been about 3 years since I last took one of David's anatomy workshops and a lot has changed. I have new questions about my practice and about students' practices that I'm working with. I'm looking forward to bringing some of those questions to David.

So, that brings me to a question for the cyber shala:
What are your yoga-anatomy related questions that you'd like David to address?

While I have some questions of my own to ask, I'm also happy to pass on any questions to David while I'm there.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ashtanga Yoga: Changing Reality

"I know what you're thinking about," said Tweedledum: "but it isn't so, nohow." "Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't , it ain't. That's logic."

-Lewis Carroll from 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'

Fair warning, this post rambles! The thoughts just never seemed to arrange themselves into coherent related paragraphs.

Much thanks to Nobel for joining in the cybershala and tackling some difficult subjects that get us thinking and talking. He writes a great blog which you can read here.

The background:
Recent posts by Nobel (here and here) where he tackles the sticky subject of yoga, weight loss and whether a letter to the editor of Yoga Journal makes valid points...Brave Nobel! :-)

The letter to the editor and Nobel's post have had me thinking about all the changes that have happened over the years that I've maintained a regular Ashtanga practice.

Nobel makes a good point in his post:
"Choosing to blow somebody off for calling me fat isn't going to change certain very basic things about how reality works. Whatever words we choose to use to describe body shapes, the basic scientific truths remain: Biology doesn't care whether I am "fat", "curvy", "round-bodied", "chunky", "big-boned", "[insert your favorite euphemism]". The more pounds I pack on, the harder my body has to work, and the harder my body has to work, the more likely premature wear-and-tear of the internal and external biological systems will occur. We can choose to accept this basic scientific reality, and work with it as best as we can; or we can choose to deny this reality at our own peril."

All that is true, factual, logical....but thinking back over all the changes I've made since beginning a regular Ashtanga practice, I notice the logical and the sensible have had very little to do with making change.

I started practice with lots of residual body image issues hanging on since the teenage years as well as plenty of "not especially healthy" food habits. Ironically, my habits only changed when I stopped trying to change them "because I thought I should"....logic was never enough.

I'd wanted to be thinner and stronger since childhood and no conscious effort to make the changes ever worked, but slowly, as I practiced regularly over years, the habits that weren't serving me, fell away. I lost my taste for my daily diet Pepsi habit (ick, right!) and lost my taste for fried food (even the smell makes me nauseous now). Regular practice provided the mirror. It became easy to know which habits would nourish and which would not because I was living it experientially from the inside out.

This is a common story with Ashtangis. Do the practice, the habits change...The habits changed when I stopped struggling and made space.

Chogam Trungpa says:
"We begin to realize that there is a sane, awake quality within us. In fact this quality manifests itself only in the absence of struggle."

We all start practice with "stuff"...and I suspect we all start with some denial about whatever our "stuff" may be. Weight is an easy kind of "stuff" to pick on because we can see it, but it is just one kind of stuff.

Nobel says: "Choosing to blow somebody off for calling me fat isn't going to change certain very basic things about how reality works."

As a scientist (that's my day job), I agree, but as a yogi, I've been stunned by the number of times what I thought was reality immediately turned on it's head. Things get interesting the moment I think I understand my own reality; they get downright messy when I start to think I understand someone else's reality.

More from Chogam Trungpa:
"You do not have to push yourself too energetically into the path but just wait, just allow some space, do not be too busy trying to understand "reality"."

Nobel is sceptical about the potential to be healthy at every size....and so am I. Current scientific research suggests otherwise. On the other hand, I think the letter to the editor makes a valid point that some words can get in the way of making change, even when they're logical and sensible. Words that sting can get in the way of making space because it is so easy to accept them as a label....and at that point I'm stuck in the ego, defining myself: "I am..."

If my teacher had said to me when I started learning handstands, "You're weak.", would I have kept trying even with that label ringing in my ears? I don't know.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Pause At the End of the Exhale

My attention in practice the past couple of weeks has been to the relationship between breath and action. What happens in the pause? What happens at the end of the exhale?

I’ve noticed as new poses are added to my practice or when I come to any pose that I find especially challenging, I tend to shorten the inhale. I notice many new students initially shorten the inhale in sun salutation B. As they learn to stretch the breath and coordinate with movement, students sometimes resort to what my teacher calls “guppy breathing”…a short big gulp of air on the inhale followed by a longer exhalation.

But Claudia’s recent post got me thinking that it had been awhile since I really put some attention on the exhale. So for the past couple weeks I’ve been watching and playing with the exhale.

I noticed that I don’t tend to shorten the exhale. My breathing pattern of the past remains. If I shorten one part of the breath, it is the inhale that gets shorter. What I had not noticed until my recent play with the breath was that although I don’t shorten the breath on the exhale, I do shorten the corresponding movement that should match the exhale. Apparently, I’m in a hurry!

For example, in sun salutations when completing the exhale in downward dog, I notice I start hopping the feet forward before the exhale is finished and well before the slight pause that comes after the exhale.

When I caught this and began to hold the heels in place in downdog until the end of each exhale, I felt a sense of uneasiness, fear.
Fear, I think, of emptiness, the undefined moment, the moment of pause at the end of the exhale when there is nothing to do. A similar sensation comes up sometimes when I do retentions after the exhale in pranayama exercises.....and by pausing without moving after the exhale, I was asking what would happen, if for a moment, I stopped defining and doing? Would I just disappear? Of course, no.

As with any part of practice, after a few repetitions of finishing the movement on the exhale, it became more familiar, lost it's feeling of stepping into the unknown, and the uneasiness faded. Practice went on.

Iyengar’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra in sutra 2.3 says abhinivesa (the fear of non-being, fear of death) "is instinctive" .
Chogam Trungpa says something related in CTSM "People are afraid of emptiness of space, or the absence of company, the absence of a shadow. It is generally a fear of space, a fear that we will not be able to anchor ourselves to any solid ground, that we will lose our identity as a fixed and solid and definite thing."

So the feeling of uneasiness and anxiousness in the pause at the end of the exhale is the fear of non-being leading to acting out of ego, acting out of a want to label the moment, out of wanting to have something to do to push back the fear of disappearing into the ether.

This got me thinking further about Claudia’s post and the link between past experience (and samskara perhaps?) and breathing pattern. Even as a kid, I was in a hurry to move on and grow up. I was sending away for college brochures when I was 12. I didn’t pay attention to my breath then, but I suspect even then, my actions were ahead of my breath. I defined myself by what I imagined I would do, careerwise.

I have a terrible habit of cutting off the end of other people’s sentences in conversation. I’ve noticed it in the past few years, but tend to catch myself just a bit too late to shut myself up!
If it's a pattern in practice, that usually means the same pattern is present elsewhere in life off the mat. Now I've begun to look for the “pause after the exhale” in life off the mat and am working on resisting the urge to fill it with something.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Balance Between Effort and Ease

Back to work and to "regular" non-vacation life...but at least for a bit, I'm rested and ready to be here. I had nice, long, relaxed practices over the last week. I also had lots of nice quiet time at home with my husband and dog. I was reminded once again that home is actually my favorite place to be on vacation.

I come from a long line of people obsessed with "staying busy". It's taken some time for me to learn to sit quietly without guilt or anxiety. My husband has been a great teacher here. He has, as long as I've known him, refused to be rushed about anything.

Earlier on in my practice life, I think I considered asana practice itself part of the "stuff to do", an item on the daily list. Lately though, it's been quieter. It's more a source of energy than a drain on it. In some ways I think this is a physical product of just doing the practice. The body is quieter with less complaints and more ease. Muscles have stretched and strengthened allowing the breath to move more smoothly and leaving me with energy instead of lethargy or anxiety. Now that the body is quieter more of the time, I'm more apt to catch the mental chatter before I get drawn so far in that I completely lose awareness.

My work for 2011 and beyond: sthira and sukham in life
keep looking for the quiet, steadiness and ease within all the "busy"ness and activity of life